Relentless Forward Progress: Ellen Rowe's "Momentum" seeks to inspire women in jazz and beyond


Ellen Rowe and her album Momentum

University of Michigan's Ellen Rowe is the world's first female chair of a major university jazz department, and last year she was one of four faculty members to be honored as an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor. Interim Dean Melody Racine said Rowe engaged in “concrete and repeated steps to build a sense of teamwork, mutual support, and collegiality within the department."

That desire to cross bridges and engage with people extends to Rowe's music, too, and is particularly evident on the pianist's new album, Momentum: Portraits of Women in Motion.

Recorded at the U-M studio in the Duderstadt building, each of Momentum's eight compositions is dedicated to a woman or women who have influenced Rowe.

"What was fun was to pick women that really mattered to me and who had made a difference in my life from the time I was 8 or 9 up til now and write music for them," Rowe said in a video interview about Momentum

"Some of the readings I was doing about race and social justice, I just came across really incredible women that I had no idea about, who started NAACP chapters, they started schools, they started colleges, they had been at the forefronts of the civil rights marches, and yet we don't hear about them," she said. "Women like Fannie Lou Hamer, Amelia Boynton, Septima Clark, Mary McLeod Bethune, and I just thought, 'Where are these women?' We need to know about these women -- I need to know about these women. And certainly, young women -- and part of this project, of course, involves mentoring -- I want to be able to talk about these women when I go out and play this music."

The women mentioned above are honored in Momentum's opening track, the bluesy "Ain't I a Woman," which is named after Sojourner Truth's famous speech at the 1951 Women's Convention in Akron, Ohio. But it wasn't the first song written for the album. That goes to "The First Lady (No, Not You Melania)."

"The first thing that jumped off my pencil when I had my sabbatic leave last year was a piece for Michelle Obama," Rowe said. "She has been such a hero to so many young women, and so many older women, that regardless of political affiliation I thought she'd be a great person to pay tribute to. ... The style description says, 'Graceful yet funky.'"

But it's not just political, civil and women's rights activists who get nods on Momentum. The record is a tribute to women in music, sports, politics -- life, basically -- who Rowe admires.

The steadily pulsing "RFP (Relentless Forward Progress)," is one of two tunes inspired by athletes. "RFP" is a tribute to Joan Benoit Samuelson who was the winner of the first Olympic marathon. "They finally decided it was OK to let women run the marathon distance, which happened about 40 years too late," Rowe said. "'Relentless Forward Progress,' which is the ultra runners' credo, that you just keep putting one foot in front of the other regardless of how you're feeling." The other track is funky "Game, Set, and Match," which is dedicated to tennis greats Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova.

Conversationists Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall are honored on the ballad "The Guardians," which Rowe wrote while on sabbatical at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in the Canadian Rockies. 

"'The Guardians' was coming from a place of deep sadness -- as in Spinal Tap," Rowe joked. "It's such a sad chord -- it's not D minor, which is the saddest key, but E minor, which is almost as sad. So, I was writing in the key of E minor and the melody came out of that."

"Ain't I a Woman" was also written at the Banff Centre, but it came from a place of defiance while Rowe was surrounded by natural beauty.

"The composition process is pretty interesting. Sometimes I'll just sit down at the piano and I'll be thinking about the subject matter and a melody and some chords just kind of come to me, and then I can just spin it out from there. Sometimes that's just based on an emotion. When I first got to the Banff Centre," Rowe said, "it was January 1 we were starting on a whole new time in politics in the life and the country. It was dark. I turned the lights off and I had stars coming through the windows, and the opening for 'Ain't I a Woman' just kind of fell into my fingers, as it were, and that felt great. That was a vibe and spirit I was looking for that basically just spun itself out into a song fairly easily, so those are the happy moments when something just occurs to you." 

Another stay during Rowe's sabbatical inspired the solo-piano piece "Song of the Meadowlark."

"One of pieces I wrote when I was at the Ucross Foundation, which is a beautiful artist colony in northeast Wyoming, was a piece based on a song based on the Western Meadowlark," she said. "I had a cabin just out on the high plains area and I creeks running in the back of it, and I would walk out my door and I'd hear all kinds of birdsong. One that was particularly interesting to me was the Western Meadowlark because we don't have them here in Michigan. ... I decided to write ['Song of the Meadowlark'] just based on that [birdsong] and it's a tribute to my mother, who got me interested in birding."

Of course, female musicians also inspired Rowe, but not just from the jazz world.

"I had to pay tribute to some of my female heroes, both jazz piano and pop-rock people I grew up listening to," she said. "One of the pieces that has so much meaning for me is ['The Soul Keepers'] that I wrote in honor of the late, great Geri Allen. Wonderful jazz pianist, mentor to me, and great friend. Her mentor, Mary Lou Williams -- I'm not sure if mentor is the right word, but someone whose music she championed and who she cared about deeply, who she was influenced by. ... I tried to use both the boogie-woogies style that Mary Lou Williams was fairly famous for but also add a very contemporary harmonic touch that pays tribute to Geri, so trying to meld 2010 with 1940."

The other musicians-inspired piece is the melodically rich "Anthem," which Rowe dedicated to Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Judy Collins.

Momentum is enjoyable on its own terms as an expertly played and harmonically rich jazz album, but it's very explicitly a call-to-instruments record to inspire female musicians. In addition to Rowe, the album includes trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, saxophonists Virginia Mayhew and Lisa Parrott, trombonist Melissa Gardiner, bassist Marion Hayden, and drummer Allison Miller -- all of whom will perform at the Momentum release show on January 31 at Kerrytown Concert House. (Additional players on the record include saxophonist Tia Fuller -- who performs with Beyonce -- and bassist Marlene Rosenberg.) 

And the release of Momentum is only one part of The Momentum Project, which seeks to engage, educate, and empower young women creatively and politically.

"While I'm very, very excited to get the music out there, and get the CD put out and the music online, I think it's even more important to me that my band goes out on the road and has a chance reach into communities and do educational outreach with these young women," Rowe said. "We want to perform the music with young women musicians in high schools and colleges around the country, and hopefully outside the country, and we want to have a chance to mentor them.

"There's not as many young women playing jazz as we would like, and not only do we want to mentor them in terms of playing the music and possibly becoming jazz musicians, but we want to make sure they know about all these important women heroes and what they contributed. And to encourage them to think outside the box and aggressively go after what they want."

In other words, Rowe is looking to create "concrete and repeated steps to build a sense of teamwork, mutual support, and collegiality" within the jazz world and beyond.

Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.

Ellen Rowe celebrates the release of "Momentum: Portraits of Women in Motion" on Thursday, January 31, with shows at 8 pm and 9:30 pm at Kerrytown Concert House.